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Why Summit Optics May Help De-escalate Public Appetite for Conflict

Max Plithides

Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Working Paper Series from Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California

Abstract: As competition between democracies and autocratic adversaries such as North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China intensifies, democratic publics may increasingly pressure their politicians to take a more confrontational stance. The implications are dangerous. Public pressure for confrontation during the Cold War caused numerous foreign policy fiascos. Public pressure also at times undermined the broad political unity necessary for concluding diplomatic agreements— even between democratic allies. How then, as the world enters a new era of great power competition, can public pressure and anger be defused and foreign policy put on a more rational footing? This policy brief, part of a series on great power competition, argues that bilateral summits with autocratic leaders may have a key role to play in shifting the public’s collective emotional ethos. It analyzes results from a large-scale survey experiment, designed around the historic 2018 Singapore Summit, which represented the first-ever meeting of the leaders of North Korea and the United States and was preceded by months of saber rattling. According to conventional logic the Summit was worthless: It produced a joint communiqué with “no concrete specifics” and had no effect on President Trump’s approval rating. Yet evidence shows that joint photographs from the Summit reduced bellicosity in American public opinion towards North Korea by allowing President Trump to act as a visual empathetic mediator. The Singapore Summit thus broadly evinces the potential value of bilateral summits to reduce tensions with autocratic adversaries.

Keywords: Social and Behavioral Sciences; summit optics; great powers; deescalation (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2021-08-17
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